Spokane City Council members voted unanimously Monday to take over a city investigation into allegations of misconduct by Mayor Jim West.
The vote came as the fifth – and final – member of a city task force appointed by the city attorney to investigate the mayor submitted a letter stepping down and urging the council to launch its own investigation.
Council President Dennis Hession said he wants to hire an attorney or human resources expert to conduct an examination of West’s hiring practices and use of city computers to solicit dates from young men.
City Attorney Mike Connelly said he has no objection to the council taking over the investigation he had initiated after allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power by West surfaced through a series of investigative stories in The Spokesman-Review in May.
Connelly, who is leaving the city to take the newly created job of city attorney for Spokane Valley, seized West’s computer and computer files after the allegations surfaced. He appointed five community members to a panel to look at the mayor’s conduct in office. Four of the five panel members subsequently resigned.
Spokane attorney Nancy Isserlis, the lone remaining member of the group, submitted a letter to Hession on Monday in which she said, “Spokane continues to burn while the mayor fiddles.”
“The well-intended effort by the city attorney to address the issues presented by Mayor West’s admitted behavior has been derailed by the resignation of four members of the panel, primarily due to uncertainties created by some in the media before the panel could even actually convene and settle on the scope of work,” Isserlis said in her letter to Hession.
She recommended the council hire an out-of-town expert as a consultant to review West’s use of e-mail and hiring to seek out personal relationships.
During Monday’s council sessions, Hession said he has asked for recommendations on an expert from Seattle attorney Hugh Spitzer, who was hired by the council in June to research the legality of adding a mayoral impeachment provision to the Spokane City Charter. Council members said they want to place an impeachment provision before voters as early as November if it’s permissible under state law.
The council investigation of West will focus on whether the mayor violated city policies regarding computer use as well as hiring, but it is not limited to those two issues, according to a resolution adopted by the council on Monday.
A separate FBI probe is under way, and a recall petition brought by Spokane resident Shannon Sullivan is pending before the state Supreme Court.
The Connelly panel had met twice and was about to begin reviewing some 13,000 pages of e-mail. But some panel members were criticized because of connections to West and then the panel itself became the target of a lawsuit by former Councilman Steve Eugster, who argued the City Council, not the city attorney, had authority to initiate a probe. The suit named panel members individually.
Along with Isserlis, members of the Connelly panel were retired judges Philip Thompson and Harold “Pete” Clarke and educators Tom Trulove of Eastern Washington University and J. Michael Stebbins, director of the Gonzaga University Institute of Ethics.
Because the council has no authority to remove the mayor, the effect of its investigation will be to provide answers to questions surrounding the mayor’s activities, Hession said. The report will be submitted to the human resources department, which handles personnel matters.
Hession said during Monday evening’s council meeting he was not sure whether employee personnel law would prohibit public release of the report. But he said in an interview after the meeting he believes the report should be made public to give residents confidence the investigation was fair and independent.
Councilman Bob Apple said elected officials cannot be seen as being above the policies that govern other employees.
“I think it’s necessary to make sure employees know we follow the rules,” Apple said. “I think it’s appropriate and probably the best thing we can do,” he said about taking over the investigation.
Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers said, “I think we need to do something very quickly …”
Councilwoman Mary Verner said, “I want to see this council have this issue brought to closure for our community.”
West said he is appointing City Prosecutor Howard Delaney to be interim city attorney when Connelly leaves on Friday.